The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has reopened businesses throughout the country while suspending all Christian church activities, from worship services to pilgrimages.
The seemingly arbitrary targeting of religious practice for the ban has led Christian leaders to suspect “a communist ploy to suppress religion,” according to a report Thursday from UCA News.
The state-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and its official bishops’ forum, the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China, jointly announced this week that all church activities would remain suspended for at least another month as part of measures to curb the spread of coronavirus.
The ban will preclude the many traditional Marian pilgrimages carried out by the nation’s Catholics during the month of May. The re-opening of seminaries and religious institutes that train church personnel will also remain on hold.
Local Christians have voiced concerns that the communist regime is using the pandemic as a cover to suppress religion, since the notice came just as the government announced that the virus has been contained.
Christian leaders have observed that normal life has returned to Chinese cities and towns and that almost all businesses, including markets and tourist sites such as the Great Wall of China, have been reopened.
The U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its annual report this week, in which it notes that China is among the nations with the most egregious violations of religious liberty.
“In 2019, religious freedom conditions in China continued to deteriorate,” the report stated. “The Chinese government has created a high-tech surveillance state, utilizing facial recognition and artificial intelligence to monitor religious minorities.”
The report found that Chinese authorities had raided or closed down hundreds of Christian churches in 2019, and “continued to harass and detain bishops, including Guo Xijin and Cui Tai, who refused to join the state-affiliated Catholic association.”
The recent notice given by the collaborating church association directed dioceses and parishes to suspend all pilgrimage programs, requesting that clergy explain to Catholics that Marian pilgrimages would not be happening in the interest of public health.
Catholics across China conduct Marian pilgrimages to shrines and sanctuaries in over 130 dioceses, during the month of May, traditionally dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The state church has asked Catholics to celebrate “the month of the Blessed Virgin Mary” by engaging in personal prayer.
Some local clergy are trying to put the best possible face on the ban, insisting to the faithful that the calendar date is not essential to a pilgrimage and they can always go at another time of year.
One bishop of a northern diocese said the state should not be blamed for setting restrictions because “it is a serious pandemic. It really can’t be ignored.”
Others, however, such as Beijing Catholic Li Xue found it strange that the CCP would cancel pilgrimages while opening tourist attractions that draw huge crowds.
“These tourist places are obviously more crowded and concentrated than the pilgrim centers,” she said. “The government has a bit too much control over religion. The authorities are using the epidemic as an excuse to curtail religious freedom, and that’s the scary part.”
A priest from Hebei, Father Dong, expressed similar sentiments.
“The Chinese Communist Party has always been hostile to religion. They are looking for opportunities to suppress the Church,” he said.